Every Friday is Health Tip Day at Zen Habits.
A couple weeks ago I posted my Beginner’s Guide to Running, which turned out to be pretty popular. Today I present my Beginner’s Guide to Cycling, which I hope is just as useful.
I’d like to note that I’m not nearly as qualified to write this guide as I was to write the running guide. I’m a very early beginner in cycling, and what I’m posting here is just the basics, from what I’ve learned from my research (websites, books, and talking to experts) and from my limited experiences so far. I basically just want to share what I’ve learned so far, so that it might help others who want to get started.
Also, I’d like to note that this guide applies only to road cycling, not mountain biking, as I haven’t hit the trails yet. Last, please add to this guide with your own tips and experiences in the comments!
Two Most Important Tips
There are a lot of important tips here in this guide, and in the links I provided, but here are the most important two.
- Start slow. There’s no need to kill yourself when you start. Even if you’re already in good shape, cycling uses different muscles than other exercises, and your body will need time to get used to the new types of stress. Start out nice and easy, enjoy yourself, and progress gradually. Just do 2-3 miles at first, and do them nice and slow. Have fun!
- Be safe. More than most sports, cycling can be very dangerous, especially if you’re on the roads with all the crazy drivers out there. In my area, two cyclists were hit in recent months (one died), so I take extra precautions. Ride during the daylight hours, follow traffic laws, always yield the right of way, wear bright colors and reflectors, wear a helmet. More safety tips below.
What’s the best bike to get for cycling? Heck if I know. I’m just a beginner. I suggest that you start with any old bike you can get your hands on. Really. If you’ve got one in your garage, or you know someone who has one that’s not being used, just spray some WD-40 on the rusty parts, inflate the tire and make sure there are no leaks, and give it a go. You don’t need anything fancy to start with.
The really nice bikes are optimal, of course, but they are also well over $1,000 (some are well over twice that), and they aren’t necessary to get into the sport and enjoy it. Once you get into it, and are sure you’ll be doing it for the long term, look into a better bike.
The nice road bikes are lighter, with strong frames, thin tires (for less friction), with a whole host of other nice features to make riding fast and easy. However, I use an old mountain bike, and I still love riding.
What’s most important is that the bike fits you. The bike should fit your height (from ground to crotch), as well as the distance from the seat to the handle. I’m not an expert at this — it’s best to go to a good bike shop to get fitted.
Cycling, more than many other sports, is equipment-centric. I am of the minimalist school – you don’t need a host of fancy gear to get started. Add those later.
What’s the minimum gear needed? Here’s my list:
- Helmet. Don’t ever ride without one. It can mean the difference between a bad headache and being a vegetable. Make sure it fits well (see this guide for tips on that, along with other equipment needed to get started).
- Water bottle. Get one with a cage that attaches to your bike. Regular bottles don’t fit in this cage, btw. An alternative is a hydration backpack. You really only need hydration tools once you start cycling beyond an hour, but it’s good to have just in case.
- Pump. A portable pump that you attach to the bike is necessary, in case you get a flat or a slow leak. You don’t want to be walking your bike back home. A floor pump is good to have at home, too, for easier pumping, but isn’t absolutely necessary.
- Repair kit. A simple repair kit would include a patch kit, a spare inner tube, 2 tire levers, a multi-tool for bikes, all in a small bag that attaches to the bike.
Other stuff you could get later:
- Gloves. I actually have a pair of these, and you could consider them essential. They absorb shock from the handles (cycling gloves are padded), but more importantly, if you crash, your palms are protected.
- Bike computer. This attaches to the bike (no, they don’t have it in Linux or Mac flavors) and tells you how far you’ve gone, how fast you’re going, your RPMs, and all other kinds of good info. Very useful, but not absolutely necessary. I don’t have one at this point, but it’s on my to-buy list.
- Gel-padded seat. For beginners, riding on a hard cycling seat can be very uncomfortable. This gel padding has saved me a bit of pain. Experienced riders tell me that you get used to it after awhile, and I have, to some degree.
- Glasses. To some, these are a must. I haven’t gotten them yet, but they block bugs and other debris from hitting you in the eyes. Hasn’t been a problem for me yet, but then I don’t go that fast!
- Shoes/pedals. The most efficient way of peddling is if you are using your up-stroke as well, not just your down-stroke (pulling the pedals up and pushing them down). To do this, of course, you either need cage pedals to put your shoes in, or the kind of pedals that lock into your cycling shoes. You’d also need special shoes for that, of course. I plan to get these some time, but haven’t gotten to it yet.
- Lights. These are a must if you ride when it begins to get dark. I don’t do that out of safety concerns.
- Racks. Important if you want to transport anything. There are all kinds of racks and panniers (cycling bags). Awesome for touring or commuting.
There are, of course, a ton of other equipment out there. But you don’t need them in the beginning.
We’ve all seen the tight and bright clothing that the pros wear. I’m sorry to report that I’ve gone minimalist here as well — I just wear my running shorts and shirt and shoes. That’s really all you need to start off.
However, if you begin to get serious about cycling, you should consider some good clothing. Good cycling clothing is thin, so you don’t get too hot, flexible for comfort, with special material that “wicks away” sweat (basically, it doesn’t soak it up and chafe your skin like cotton does). It’s also tight, so the wind doesn’t flap your clothing all around and irritate the hell out of you. And the bright colors serve a purpose as well: they make you visible to those crazy drivers!
Cold weather: I don’t live in cold weather, but many of you do — in that case, thin cycling wear is good, but layer it on. If you get hot, you can always take off a layer.
Always be safe on the road. Do not be daring, do not insist on the right of way, do not break traffic laws (yes, you have to follow them too), and always be as visible as possible. If you know the common causes of accidents, you can look out for them:
- Opening car doors. This is a common one — someone opens their car door, right into your path, and you don’t have time to swerve. Slam! The only thing to say is to be on the lookout for any doors that are about to open, and don’t ride too close to parked cars.
- Sideswiped. If you right on the outermost edge of the road, as many cyclists do, cars will be tempted to try to pass you in the same lane. As this is a tight fit, this could result in you being hit. It’s safest to take the center of the lane, even if that doesn’t seem as safe, until you can safely move to the shoulder to let cars pass if necessary. You have just as much a right to that lane as the cars do.
- Intersections. If you are making a left turn across an intersection, be very careful. You might think that the oncoming traffic, or the cross traffic from either side, will see you, but you could be wrong. Be very sure you are seen by all drivers. Right turns can also be dangerous if the traffic going into that lane doesn’t see you — or if the driver behind you also making a right turn doesn’t see you, as he is busy looking to his left.
Safety is too large a topic to be covered here. Try this guide or this one for more.
This is a topic that might seem simple, but for many true beginners, it can be confusing and a little scary. But with a little practice, it’s actually pretty easy. Here’s what you need to know:
- Three front gears. There are usually three gears in the front — the large, medium and small. There is one shifting mechanism at the handlebars for switching between these gears (marked 1, 2 and 3). The large one is for when the pedaling is the easiest, and can go the fastest. Good for downhills and flats. The small one is for hills, and takes a lot of pedaling to go the same distance as the other two, but is much easier to turn. The middle is between them, and is probably going to be used most often (at least by us beginners).
- Seven back gears. These also go from small to largest, and have a shifting mechanism for switching between them (1-7). I usually pair the small front gear with the largest three back gears (1-3), the medium front gear with the middle back gears (3-5), and the large front gear with the smallest back gears (5-7).
- Basic premise. Basically, you want to pedal using the largest front gear with the smallest back gear that you can handle while still pedaling at a high cadence (pedaling fast). That means that if you can shift to a larger front gear while still pedaling at a high cadence, you should. But if it begins to get too tough for you to pedal at a high cadence, shift down to a smaller front gear (or larger back gear or both). This will take a little practice, but it’s not hard. And as you get better at cycling, you will be able to pedal faster with the harder gears, over time.
There’s more to gears and shifting, though. Read this guide for more.
Obviously this is a pretty important area. It’s a major safety skill that takes a little practice to learn. A few tips:
- Down hills. The temptation going down hills, to limit your speed and make sure you don’t get out of control, is to brake the whole way down. It’s recommended that you don’t do this, though — the brake pad could burn out. You want to do it in spurts.
- Front brake. Many beginners use both brakes simultaneously to brake. But more experienced cyclists (and I’m not one yet) use the front brake most of the time. If you practice using the front brake, you will lose the fear of flipping over the front wheel.
- Rear brake. This is good for certain situations, especially if it’s slippery or your front tire blows out.
This is a great guide for braking.
For beginning cyclists, hills can be a big challenge. Experienced cyclists actually have no problems with hills — they know how to shift, to brake, to pace themselves, and they have gotten stronger on hills with practice. There are two areas with hills to be concerned with:
- Uphills. Cycling uphill isn’t that hard if you shift to the right gears. It took me a little while to learn this. What I like to do is build up some speed going into a hill, shifting to a bigger front gear and getting some momentum. This will carry me a little ways up the hill. As the pedaling becomes more difficult, I gradually shift to easier gears until I’m on the smallest front gear and largest back gear. If I’m lucky, I don’t get to that point. It’s also good to learn to pace yourself — don’t pump the pedals too hard early on in a long hill, or you’ll tire out.
- Downhills. Steep downhills can be scary for us beginners because of the speed. I recommend slowing yourself down with intermittent braking. If the downhill isn’t too steep, I recommend shifting to your big front gear and smallest back gear — you can really build up some speed that will carry you when you hit the flat or the next hill.
They happen to everyone. Know how to fix them, and be sure to have a pump and a spare inner tube. You don’t want to be walking the bike home. It’s really not that hard. See this guide and this one for more.
Commute to Work
One of my goals is to regularly commute to work. While I’ve done it a number of times now, I’m still working on this one. It saves money on gas, helps the environment, and gets your exercise in all at once. Does it get any better?
The main issues for commuting to work mostly revolve around being clean with clean clothes. I give my tips on bike commuting here, but for me, the key has been to bring clothes to work when I drive or carpool to work, and then to shower at work (this is a great option if you’re lucky enough to have it). Also try this guide on bike commuting and this one for a lot more info.
If you’re just getting into cycling, a great way to learn more, and to motivate yourself, is to join a cycling forum (off-line cycling groups are great too). Here are a few to get you started:
- Bike forums
- Cycling forums
- Cycling Forum
There are a ton of sites on cycling out there. Here are just a few to get you started:
- Beginner’s Guide to Mountain Biking
- Beginner Cycling Tips
- Cycling Help for Beginners
Again, there are a ton of them. Here are a few I recommend:
- The Bicycling Guide to Complete Bicycle Maintenance and Repair
- Bicycling Magazine’s New Cyclist Handbook
- Bicycling Magazine’s Training Techniques for Cyclists
- 6 Tips for Commuting to Work by Bike
- Beginner’s Guide to Running
- Top 42 Exercise Hacks
- Top 15 Diet Hacks
- Recipe: Best … soup … ever
- How to Get Back on the Exercise Train
- Trying to eat healthier? Make lifestyle changes, and have a weekly cheat day
- Health tip: Try eating vegetarian sometimes
- Recipe for a Flat Stomach
- Get Healthy and Fit, Part 2 – Exercise Edition